Monday, February 03, 2003

A kind of whimsy
St. Petersburg Times, published February 02, 2003


Kinky Friedman had no idea what kind of cover he wanted for his latest mystery, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch. He definitely did not want his name to be too big.

"Usually when you see an author's name in huge letters, you know it's probably a mediocre book," he says. "I mean, Danielle Steel's name takes up half the cover."

He also did not want his new mystery to look like a mystery, and he didn't want the cover to depict some meaningless detail from one scene. "If the girlfriend is wearing red boots in one scene, they'll put red boots on the cover and nobody knows what the hell it means."

So what did he want?

"I don't know what I like," Friedman says. "Some people can look at something and instantly say it sucks, but I can't."

So when New York freelance designer Brad Foltz got the assignment to create a cover for Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, he didn't get a lot of guidance from the author, and he knew the cover would be difficult. "There's a quirkiness to Kinky's writing that's tough to portray," says Foltz, who struggled with this problem when he created the cover for Friedman's earlier novel, The Mile High Club (which featured the author's name in huge letters, by the way).

Foltz flirted with a couple of obvious ideas. In Ranch, the "Kinkster" - a hip, irreverent private eye - works on three cases which he catalogs as "Moe," "Curly" and "Larry," so Foltz considered an image of the Three Stooges. "But we would have had to go to a lot of trouble to get the rights to an image," he says, "and the cover would have made it look like a Three Stooges book."

One of the cases involves a three-legged cat, so Foltz created a few sketches using that idea, but he discarded them all.

Finally he resorted to every designer's best friend - a stock photo agency. In bygone days Foltz would have called the agency, given them a few key words - "cat," perhaps, and "ranch." Then he would have waited for the agency to send a messenger to his apartment with some photographs pulled from its archives. Now that images have been digitized and placed on the Web, Foltz can roam the archives himself, free-associating key words as he explores. In this case, his searching led him to an image he never would have thought to request - a little boy in a cowboy suit, shooting his gun at the camera and grinning like a crazed demon. The image, while it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, seemed to embody the "Kinky-ness" he wanted, so Foltz downloaded it, manipulated the color, tinkered with the background and added a little cat to the boy's hat - a sly reference to the cat in the plot. On the back cover he added a picture of a toy cat.

Friedman loved it.

"The guy really hit it out of the park," he says. "There's something about that kid [on the cover] that is really grotesque. It's a mesmerizing little picture."

Friedman wasn't the only one who liked the cover a lot. The editors of Pages magazine named the cover the best of the year. "It's hard to top a chaps-wearing, gun-toting, mask-sporting baby in a cowboy hat," the editors commented. "It's just an excellent image that conveys the kind of whimsical, in-your-face, politically incorrect humor of the book," says Pages editor John Hogan. "We didn't conduct a big official vote, but it was unanimous."

- Tom Valeo is a writer who lives in Chicago. His e-mail address is

© Copyright 2001 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

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